David Suzuki: Using smart growth to combat urban sprawl in Canada

Canada’s towns and cities are at a crossroads. Down one path is urban sprawl. We all know where this well-worn route leads: endless pavement, long commutes and traffic jams, and high social and infrastructure costs. Continued sprawl threatens the health of our families, our communities, and the ecosystems that sustain us.

In the other direction is an extraordinary new path: ending sprawl using the principles of “smart growth” and creating compact, higher-density communities with public transit, bike paths, and walking trails, surrounded by precious farmland and green spaces like wetlands and woodlands.

Many Canadian municipalities have already started looking at ways to make their communities smarter and more compact. In B.C., Squamish and Prince George have gone through intensive planning processes to define what “smart growth” means and to craft plans to implement this new vision.

In one of the country’s most innovative efforts to stem the outward spread of low-density development and confine growth to the urban core, politicians in the town of Markham, north of Toronto, are considering a plan to establish one of Canada's first urban food belts. If approved, the plan would limit growth to areas that are already built up. Many municipalities in the Greater Toronto Area are facing modest intensification along with more sprawl over the next couple of decades, but Markham is the only one to consider containing all of its growth within existing boundaries. This plan is largely aimed at protecting the Town’s few remaining farms, fields, and forests from being dug up and paved over.

By preventing sprawl, Markham’s food belt plan will create incentives for the Town to intensify growth. This would mean new home and multi-residential construction within the current urban boundary—within easy access of public transit and existing shopping malls, schools, recreational facilities, and other infrastructure, such as water and sewage systems. Markham could then preserve its ability to produce valuable commodities, like locally grown food, and continue to benefit from the critical ecological services that farmlands and green spaces provide, like clean air and water, healthy soil, and habitat for wildlife like songbirds and wildflowers.

People often ignore the fact that the farmland and green spaces within and surrounding urban areas provide an astonishing range of ecological services for free, like filtering and storing drinking water and preventing erosion by ensuring that riverbanks remain stable. Research by the David Suzuki Foundation and others has shown that nature’s benefits are extremely valuable in monetary terms, and in some cases are truly priceless.

Last year, the David Suzuki Foundation tallied up the economic contribution of the ecological services provided by southern Ontario's Greenbelt, a 1.8-million-hectare zone of protected farmland, forests, watersheds, wetlands, and other green spaces that envelopes the Niagara Peninsula, Hamilton, Kitchener-Waterloo, and the Greater Toronto Area. The research report, Ontario's Wealth, Canada's Future: Appreciating the Value of the Greenbelt's Eco-Services, conservatively estimated that the Greenbelt provides $2.6 billion a year in ecological services such as recreational opportunities, pollination, and capture and storage of carbon in its remnant forests, farmland, and rich soils.

Replacing ecological services with engineered and manufactured substitutes such as water-filtration plants and dykes or retention walls can cost millions of dollars. Some ecosystem services, such as the aesthetic and psychological benefits of natural and rural landscapes, are impossible to replace at any price.

Freezing further urban expansion is also one of the most effective ways to reduce emissions of heat-trapping greenhouses gases that cause global warming. Close to 80 percent of Canadians live in towns and cities. As a consequence, most of our massive environmental and carbon footprint is directly related to the way we plan our neighbourhoods, including where people live and how far they have to travel to get to work, school, and the places where they shop.

Municipalities across the country must choose whether to continue along the path of sprawling infrastructure and increased dependence on cars, or to stop sprawl and protect green spaces by making communities more compact. This is one area where politicians at the local level, such as those in Markham, Squamish, and Prince George, can make a big impact and create a greener, healthier future for their communities that will kick-start a wave of smart, compact urban growth throughout the country.

Learn more at www.davidsuzuki.org.



stop urban sprawl, stop TransLink

May 4, 2010 at 7:30pm

I agree, TransLink building regional transit all over the place is neither sustainable nor smart. Just look at Toronto.


May 4, 2010 at 9:23pm

I have often wondered what a good definition of "sprawl" might be. I think it means the other person's house and yard and all the clutter they have accumulated.
Rod Smelser

John B

May 5, 2010 at 11:14am

I think building leaky rabbit hutches (condos) is the the worng solution. Large lots with lots of trees would absorb more pollution than the pasture it replaces. If the ALR were removed land would be cheaper and pollution would drop with larger lots (big enough for trees).

ALR fan

May 5, 2010 at 3:00pm

@ John B: Just for argument's sake what would happen if we got rid of the ALR and opened up all that land to development? On one side we may get slightly cheaper housing in the short term but only slightly cheaper because developers will not bring surplus supply onto the market just because you and I want cheaper housing. On the other side we pave over our region's local food security, a highly questionable act considering the near future impacts of globally peaking oil production, which will impact the cost of every good and service that depends on liquid fossil fuels. Goodbye Spanish grown tomatoes! Goodbye strawberries in February! Hello locally grown, in season produce and canning! We already have a limited land base because of the mountains, ocean and border so getting rid of local agricultural lands for a short term reduction in land costs seems like all we'd be doing is delaying the inevitable while undermining the food system that will have sustain us in the future. Finally, according to the GVRD's 2005 GHG inventory cars and trucks are the biggest source of pollution in the region. Low density development creates a dependence on them to get around. When we build compactly walking, cycling and transit become easy mobility options because distances between destinations are shorter, eliminating unnecessary pollution.


May 5, 2010 at 7:48pm

Oh yes, the paradise of urban concentration: green framland, fresh smell of manure and of course the bliss of hearing, smelling, seeing your ever present neighbors! Thank you Suzuki for offering us the communist dream 50 years later!


May 6, 2010 at 10:53am

The single, preventable cause of urban sprawl is population growth...yet Dr. Suzuki and his ilk won't touch this with a ten foot pole. There are a few reasons for this. Look at the donors' list for the David Suzuki Institute and see banks, developers, real estate speculators and other business interests who keep lobbying for MORE growth, mostly in the form of immigration. Most of Canada's relentless population growth is due to our staggering--and totally unsustainable--250,000+ per year immigration intake.

There are really only thousands of new housing starts annually because of Trudeapian-Mulroneyist mass immigration (Mulroney set the current 250k 'target' after consulting with the real estate sector). Regardless of how 'smart' you build new housing developments, and how many low-flush toilets you install, you're going to need more greenfield development and freshwater for all these people. This is serious, because A. less than 5% of Canada's land is arable, mostly around the metropolitan areas where new immigrants generally settle, and B. areas such as Southern Alberta already have long-term water supply issues (Okotoks is a town that has even imposed a population cap for this reason). The business lobbies benefitting from mass immigration have carefully framed this as a 'race' issue, making the topic unbroachable.

Oh--and Mr. Ecology has FIVE KIDS and has a house in the BC rainforest. I guess all of this 'green' stuff is just for the rabble.


May 8, 2010 at 6:28pm

Ever since Suzuki sold out to the Liberals in the last election I cannot believe anything he says anymore. What a traitor to the common good and environmentalists everywhere.

ALR Overhaul

May 10, 2010 at 12:19pm

<p>ALR as it was implemented was a poorly designed policy, though the intent was not bad. It was a hasty reaction to the environmental movement, older residents concerned about inmigration and nostalgic about the past, it was mainly Vancouver specific. As the years have passesd, many aspects of the ALR have been a complete failure e.g the urban sprawl in the Fraser Valey and north was as a direct result of the blanket ban on urban development on any farmland, no matter how degraded and devoid of native soils it might be. Case in point, the big bend and garden city lands. How can a small parcel of land completely sorrounded by urban developement be deemed as suitable for agriculture and vital to food production??? Especially when it can't produce any necessary food grains needed and can only produce vegetables 3 months a year(which can be easily accomplished by setting aside neighbourhood vegetable gardens and smaller urban farms and greenhouses). Also, no one takes into account the number of trees lost by building in the bush(like Surrey, Langley and abbotsford have done) or building up the mountains like most of Metro's north. That just takes away the arguement that farmland is more important for the eco system. The Markham situation is different. They had absolutely no urban growth limits and anyone could build with a permit from the city. That changed somewhat with the Ontario Greenbelt intiative, a much better policy than the ALR. What we need here is an overhaul of the the ALR with a European style urban growth boundaries for the Metro as opposed to a city by city approach or a blanket ALR for the entire province. Absolutely no growth eastwards or southward beyond the exisitng urban clusters in Langely and Surrey. Trade some unprodutive farmland to save clusters of urban forests slated for developement. Try developing North Richmond joining it with Richmond's east and south Vancouver and South Burnaby lands with mixed developements, industrial and farming components. Joining it with Queensborough and then onto North Delta across the river with a transit line from Richmond centre running south along the river in North Richmond. All the while limiting or slowing down major growth in the north east on the mountains. There is no need to dezone any land in Abbotsford which is experiencing the worst sprawl just because of lower prices, the goal here is to bring down the huge difference in real eastate prices between the middle class areas that are deemed affordable(Surrey, Langely, Abby) and the ones deemed as expensive(Richmond, Coquitlam, South Van, Burnaby etc.). This would improve affordability considerably if done properly(reward developers with tax incentives if they build in the above mentioned growth areas faster). Also, Richmond, Surrey and Coquitlam need to seriously start developing nodal Town centres like Burnaby and Queens Quay etc. to absorb growth. This has been hindered to a large extent by the ALR having separated urban growth areas from one another by huge chunks of undeveloped land where an urban transit line becomes a unviable option and the car becomes a neccessity. Also, there is an urgent need for a commuter rail network from Vancouver/Burnaby to Abbotsford/mission running on both sides of the river and also one to the north shore from white rock, very similar to the GO train network of Southern Ontario .


May 12, 2010 at 12:23am

@ "ALR Overhaul" The ALR as implemented by the BCNDP, was considered one of the most forward thinking policies of its time back in 1974. It was the first such policy protecting farmland in North America. A policy that has proven its worth only to be brought to its knees by the BC Liberal's land developers who are only concerned with their own profits and not our future generations viability.


May 12, 2010 at 12:51am

@ stu. I couldn't agree more with you stu. It is also curious that someone as intelligent and accomplished as David Suzuki would allow all he has worked for to be compromised by the BC Liberals' quasi green intiatives.

<blockquote>stu's quote:

Ever since Suzuki sold out to the Liberals in the last election I cannot believe anything he says anymore. What a traitor to the common good and environmentalists everywhere.</blockquote>

It is also odd how David Suzuki will not even acknowledge the BCNDP's ALR as being one of the most respected policies of its day.

It is sad when the egos of old men betray the altruistic intentions of their youth.